The New Irish Order

The citizens of the Republic of Ireland will go to the polls today and stage a new Irish revolution.

Fianna Fáil has been in power for 61 of the last 79 years. Now it is all but certain that the party which gloried in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger will be ousted.

If there was any money left to spend on furnishings, Enda Kenny of Fine Gael would be ordering new curtains for the Taoiseach’s office.

Ireland no longer serves as a vision of what Wales might look like if we became a nation of paper millionaires. But it is a possible example of how Welsh politics could be transformed in a time of crisis.

The lack of a traditional left-right divide in Irish politics is considered one reason why the slide towards economic disaster was neither spotted nor halted. A political culture dominated by the divisions of the civil war was not well-suited to the challenges of globalisation.

But the developing relationship between Fine Gael and the UK Conservatives has established the party firmly on the right of centre. A country whose modern quest for self-determination began with the 1916 proclamation of a socialist- inspired republic looks set to swing right in this moment of crisis.

There is head-scratching about whether the parties in Wales’ Assembly – which have spent decades fighting each other in UK elections – are suited to respond to devolved politics. Only a brave soul would predict how these beasts will evolve or what new creatures will emerge.

The upbeat nature of the last Welsh Labour conference and the lack of suspense about the May 5 election is rooted in the near-certainty First Minister Carwyn Jones will stay in post. The only immediate question is whether Plaid will join Labour in coalition.

Could Labour dominate 21st century devolved politics in Wales in the way Fianna Fáil has commanded the Dáil since independence?

The Assembly’s other parties have not made reform of the Welsh electoral system a top demand, although the 2004 Richard Commission recommended changes which would have brought new fluidity. Meanwhile, two Welsh- speaking, rugby-loving Labour leaders have built their party a public identity completely at ease in devolved Wales.

But Ireland has demonstrated that apparently staid political cultures can be transformed in times of crisis. As the Assembly matures, and its responsibility grows, voters will respond to parties with a vision and hunger to lead.

We can hope for a new era of both accountability and ambition. For each party, there is everything to play for and the challenge of changing a nation for good.

A Thursday column